022: Just a small garden

Chelsi was excited, it was the first official day, of her first official workshop. She smiled at the small group of woman standing beside her with her hoe was in her hand.  The small space felt like a blank canvas that she would get to paint with brightly colored vegetables, and flowers. She had always wanted a garden.  In fact, the opportunity to learn about gardening was one of the prevailing reasons she had joined Peace Corps.  All of her previous attempts had failed miserably. There had been the year she tried to grow some vegetables in her parents backyard and ended up with only one eggplant, and the year she tried container gardening and dragged a couple of tomato plants all over the country.  That attempt produced just three tomatoes all summer. But this time I’m ready. I’m going to be just here to take care of it and people are going to come and help because they also want to learn about gardening.  And there are no vegetables in the village…
At IST, in-service training, the Peace Corps permagardener, Peter, had come and giving a two day workshop on how to dig climate resilient gardens using village available materials as a way to improve mother and child nutrition, or MABU, the mother and baby unit, as he often referred to it. 
“If dug properly and managed well, you will only have to water this garden two to three times a week. Instead of everyday, twice a day. And the most meaningful difference,” he continued, “is now, because we’re water less often we can dig our gardens closer to the house.”
Chelsi had spent most of community entry erecting fence beside her compound. When people asked what it would be for they laughed when she said a garden.  ‘But where will the water come from?’
“So where is the water going to come from,” Peter had asked rhetorically.”Many Sub-Saharan Africa countries get just as much, if not more rain then places like London. But we think of Sub-Saharan Africa as being dry and London as being wet because of the pattern in which the rain falls.  London receives its meter and a half of rain in little bits over the course of weeks or months.  Arid Ethiopia, where I do most of my work, gets its meter and a half of rain in a couple of half an hour rain events that happen all within six weeks. So what we need to do is create a micro climate of our gardens that catches and stores that rain for use during the dry season.  Otherwise if you’re going to be able to have a garden at all it will likely have to be far, far away from the house near water and where it’s harder to manage.”
Chelsi thought about this, and it was true.  Chelsi’s host mother in the village, her Bamaama, had her garden near a borehole, a four hour walk away.  Because of the distance, managing it well was difficult.  Some villagers who gardened in the wetlands just a short walk from the house.  There the water was less than a foot or two under in mostly place but the soil, though it was black and looked nice was heavy and even over log with water making it labors to form in to rows of mounds which is the traditional method. 
“I have picked this spot here,” she told the Bamaamas, “because it is just next to this ant hill which will funnel lots of rain into our garden.  So when you’re looking for a place by your homes to put a garden look for someplace on a gentle slope, near an anthill or an iron roofed house.” Chelsi repeated her instructions one more time, using interpretive hand motions and the kiikaonde gardening vocabulary she had been studying up on. 
After, Chelsi led the group of women moved into the fenced in space. “So what we want to do first is create a small wall or berm, direct water in to half meter by half meter holes which we will dig around the outside. To improve the walls so that we can still use them for cultivating we are going to do what in English we call double digging.”  Again, this was followed by interpretive hand motions and kiikaonde gardening vocabulary.  And then she dug her hoe into the ground. “To start double digging we will first dig just a little bit, in a little section.  We just want to loosen up the top layer of soil, down to where the ground becomes hard and compacted again.”  The women’s eyes widened as Chelsi started digging in the dirt.  She would be told later by one of her younger gardening students that she had never seen a white person dig in the dirt before.
The women took turns loosening up the dirt, removing wads of roots and adding wood ash, bits of charcoal and manure to the loosened dirt.  As they dug Chelsi did her best to explain how the garden worked.
“When water, from the rain, is directed into the holes it sits and is able to sink deep in to the soil where it will be stored until dry season, May, June, July, August, September… Then as the soil in our garden dries out in the sun the water will be drawn up into our beds; which will be soft and sponge like because of the double digging.”  Chelsi looked around, some of the women were nodding their heads.
“But all this digging, it’s very difficult. And when do we add the fertilizer?” asked a women in a bright yellow tank top.
“To start, if we dig good, next year no digging. But we must not be on the beds or berms.”  Speaking kiikaonde was not too difficult if she was convening thoughts from her own mind where she had time to prepare, but answering questions were like pop quizzes that pushed her languages skills. “No fertilizer, because we put charcoal, manure and wood ash and dig all, we put fertilizer, no.  After we will, can learn about making compost.” While speaking her gaze had wandered towards the sky as if her eyes could turn about and look for the right words in her mind. She looked back at the women now. “Putting charcoal, wood ash and manure, like fertilizer.” She added for good measure.
The women were smiling and giggling.  Remember, they are not laughing at you, they are laughing because they’re happy. And right now you are making them happy.  Chelsi reminded herself of this often. 
It took the better part of the morning for the group to finish up the front berm and dig out two of the water catching holes. Now many of the women were sitting off in the shade, or leaning on their hoes. In training she was told not to keep her gardening students any more than two hours, so as not wear them out.  “When you are making your gardens at your homes they do not have to be this big.”  Chelsi opened her arms, it was the first time her 6 by 7 meter fenced in plot was feeling big. “4 by 4 meters is a good size to start.” I’ll do another berm this afternoon, Chelsi thought, maybe another group of people will come. “But this is all for today.  You’ll all done a wonderful job.  The garden is looking very nice so far. I will let you know when we start digging beds, or if you would like some help getting your gardens started, let me know and I’ll be happy to come.”
The group thanked her, and started to make their way out of the gate. 

Categories: DIY, Gardening, Teaching | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “022: Just a small garden

  1. Sandy

    Well Done Chelsi!
    Love you xo


  2. Kirsten

    Any thoughts on what you’ll be growing?


  3. Amanda Chaput

    I am glad that you are gardening! Its interesting how you actually want to plant a garden next to an ant hill. I have now kept an Orchid alive for 4 months and it is the longest living plant I have ever owned by ten fold.

    I thought of you the other day! Mav caught a mouse, thankfully he did not want to eat it though. He just killed it then quite literally threw it away. School is going better this quarter than usual however it is still slowly killing me.

    I may be in Chicago in April haha who knows maybe I will see your brother. He does always seem to be conveniently around when I am there. I miss you and I hope things are going well there! I am glad that Daisy found her way to you =) I was talking to a girl from the peace corps the other day who actually brought two dogs back from her time in Africa. So it can most certainly be done!

    You are coming up on your year of being gone quickly! The states misses you though! and so do I


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